A Birthday for Nanaki

December 2022

In the year after Meteorfall, birthdays took on a special sort of significance. The world had come so close to ending that each date marked one that nobody had been sure would ever come again. They celebrated their survival. They celebrated living, and the continued existence of the world beneath their feet.

But it was some point after the anniversary that Yuffie overheard Nanaki remark that he was 49, and she made an urgent call to Cloud's PHS to accuse him of celebrating Nanaki's birthday in secret, without her.

It was 3am, which she claimed to have forgotten given the time difference, but she'd done that too many times for it to be unintentional. Groggily, Cloud assured her that she hadn't missed anything. Nanaki just hadn't told them.

Was that weird? he wondered after he hung up. They'd celebrated every other one, even Vincent's, which had required no small amount of legwork on Reeve's part in unearthing his old personnel file from the ruins of Shinra HQ.

Even Aeris's, which they'd learned from Elmyra.

Why should Nanaki be any different?

In the morning, he talked to Tifa about it, and she made a few calls around to the others. Nobody knew. On a visit to Cosmo Canyon, Barret determined that even the elders there didn't seem to remember the date. Cid finally tried asking Nanaki directly, only to be met with a cool, "Why does it matter?"

"Must be he's never celebrated it," Barret reasoned when he got back. "If he did, folks there would know about it. Maybe it just ain't a thing in his culture an' we oughtta let it go."

"I guess," said Cloud, and he decided he wouldn't push it, but it didn't really sit right with him. Even if it wasn't something Nanaki's people had cared about, weren't they his people now, too?

Eventually, it fell out of mind amidst the day-to-day tasks. They'd taken up residence in Kalm after everything had settled down; Elmyra had family there, and it wasn't far from Midgar. Tifa and Barret both felt strongly about staying close to help rebuild, and while Cloud had never lived there long enough for it to become home, he wanted to help, too.

It was personal for him in a different way, because Meteor never would have come if not for him. No one had said a word of blame since their battle with Sephiroth, and it wasn't something that ate at him, but he thought it would have, if he didn't help. So he did what he could.

They made their trips around the rest of the world, too. Sometimes with Cid to give them a lift, sometimes on their own steam. They saw Wutai and Junon and Cosmo Canyon, but they visited North Corel the most often, because that was the guilt that would eat at Barret. After a year, it was starting to look more like a town than a trash heap, and Barret carried himself a little lighter. Not anything you'd notice if you didn't live with him, but he'd started talking about taking Marlene to visit, too.

It was in the spring, months after the last time any of them had talked about it, that Yuffie suddenly barged into their house. Holding a worn, leatherbound book up over her head, she announced without preamble, "Bugenhagen's diary."

"Yuffie, what are you doing here?" said Cloud.

"Um, sharing intel, obviously," said Yuffie.

She let the front door slam behind her and approached to join them in the kitchen. On their own, none of them were any good at taking time off, but they'd worked out a system where they'd bully each other into it, and they'd carved out a half day for themselves. Tifa had been flipping through one of her cookbooks, contemplating something more involved for dinner.

"Yuffie," she said, "did you ask anyone if you could take that?"

"Relax," said Yuffie, "we don't have to read the whole thing, we've just gotta look through a year or so."

The answer was definitely no, she hadn't asked.

"You mean you haven't read it yet?" Cloud asked.

"Like I was gonna read it in transit," she said, throwing him a look like he should have known better. He figured she might have taken a minute to flip through it in Cosmo Canyon before absconding with it halfway across the world, but he just shared a look with Tifa instead of saying so.

"I don't know about this," said Tifa. "Isn't that meant to be private?"

"I mean, he's dead," said Yuffie, "and so are most of the people he's writing about, probably. Whose privacy are we really violating here?"

Cloud scratched his head. Yuffie always had the bluntest way of putting things, but who were they harming, really? "I guess we could skim it, a little."

Yuffie opened the diary and flipped her way through the pages in search of the right year. Her expression brightened as she found it, and her fingers traced over a few lines of handwriting before that expression twisted into horror.

"Oh, gross!" she exclaimed. She fumbled the book shut and tossed it at Tifa. "I'm gonna hurl."

Cloud exchanged glances with Tifa as Yuffie marched out of the room. Tifa reopened the diary and searched out the same entry. After a few lines, her ears pinked. Cloud leaned closer to read over her shoulder and managed to make out the words 'made passionate love under' before Tifa quickly turned the page.

The next entry read just after New Year's, 1959.

"He was... eighty-something, right?" said Cloud.

"Uh-huh," said Tifa. "I guess... he still had plenty of energy."

They didn't make it much farther before the front door opened again, and Barret walked in with Marlene. She'd started school that fall, and Barret delighted in picking her up whenever he could. He carried her tiny backpack in his prosthetic hand while Marlene had both hands around a large, rolled-up piece of paper.

"What're you reading?" Marlene asked.

"Oh, just some old history book," Tifa said, casually passing it off to Cloud. At barely six, he doubted Marlene's reading skills were advanced enough to decipher both Bugenhagen's handwriting and his vocabulary, but it was better safe than sorry. Marlene's nose wrinkled; history was boring.

Barret caught Tifa's gaze over her head, raising an eyebrow, but he said, "Why don'tcha show 'em your painting."

Marlene beamed, and she made her way over to the kitchen table to unfurl her latest masterpiece.

"It's our family," she said.

Over the past year or so, Barret had started referring to their friends as aunts and uncles. Tifa and Cloud were just Tifa and Cloud, but there was Aunt Yuffie and Uncle Reeve and all the rest, and apparently it had made an impression. The orange blob that was Uncle Nanaki would probably have raised the most questions with her teachers if not for the very last member of the family.

Beneath all of them was a figure lying on her back, her arms stretched up towards the rest. She wore a pink dress.

"That's Aeris," Marlene explained, as though Cloud were staring because he couldn't identify her. "She's watching over everybody. Miss Julia thought she should be in the sky, but I know she's in the Lifestream."

Cloud managed to relax at the realization that Marlene hadn't painted a dead body; it was supposed to be Aeris's spirit, and she wasn't wrong. They all felt it, sometimes.

If she was paying attention now, she was probably laughing.

"This is amazing, Marlene," said Tifa. "You must've worked really hard on it."

"Yeah," Cloud agreed. "Nice to see everybody all together."

"Gonna have to find a special place for it," said Barret, which was going to be tough considering he saved every single thing she ever drew. This one was too big for the fridge, which was already so plastered with artwork that there was a distinct flutter every time you opened it. But they had some wall space left.

Cloud returned his attention to the diary, flipping through the pages and doing his best to process nothing else on his hunt for a capital N.

"Who's in the shower?" Barret asked. "Elmyra home early?"

Cloud realized the water had started running. It was Tifa who answered, "Oh, Yuffie's here."

"Yuffie's here?" Marlene repeated excitedly.

Barret rolled his eyes. "She'll call at 2am to tell us about a cool bug she found, but she can't be bothered to give us a heads up before she visits."

Tifa shrugged, smiling ruefully. "I think we'd have to actually mind for her to stop."

"I've gotta find-- I have to show her my collection," Marlene announced, racing upstairs. With the weather warming up, they'd paid a trip to the shore the other week, keeping a watchful eye on her as she collected seashells along the beach. They were, for now, incredibly precious to her.

Barret watched her go with a smile and then jabbed a finger at the diary. "So, what's with the 'history book'?"

"Yuffie stole Bugenhagen's diary," Tifa explained.

Barret snorted. "What for?"

"Nanaki's birthday," said Cloud. "Seems like Bugenhagen wrote pretty regularly, so it should be in here somewhere."

"Oh." Barret rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "So we're gonna do it then?"

Cloud flipped to another entry. He'd already passed the spring, so they hadn't missed it again this year. "I know maybe he's never celebrated it before, but he's coming up on 50. That sounds like a big deal to me."

"Yeah... Guess we forced Vincent into it anyhow. It's only fair."

"I wonder what sort of party he'd like..." Tifa mused.

"Wait," said Cloud, his finger settling on the word Nanaki. "I think I found it."

Tifa leaned in. "That's not long before we all met."

"You think that bugs 'im?" Barret wondered. "Havin' a birthday in that place?"

Cloud shook his head. "I don't know. But we've all had some pretty bad years. Just one more reason to celebrate the good ones."

Like Cloud's, Nanaki's birthday was in the summer. Cloud had spent four of his in a tank, the dates passing unobserved and unremarked, and when he'd reached Midgar, Tifa hadn't remembered it. At the time, he'd stupidly decided it was just another sign that he couldn't let himself get caught up in other people's lives. It was better to stay detached.

It turned out people remembered your birthday a lot better when you actually told them when it was.

They recruited Vincent as the distraction, sure he wouldn't be suspected. He visited Nanaki from time to time, and it wasn't unusual for them to prowl the canyon together. Plus Vincent had the best poker face out of all of them.

Not that Cloud had ever played poker with him. It seemed like a bad idea.

Cid played chauffeur, picking everyone up to ensure they all made it on time. Wutai was last, and Cloud and Barret stared as Yuffie dragged what appeared to be a giant dog bed onto the ship.

"The hell's that?" said Barret.

"The highest quality dog bed that gil can buy," Yuffie proclaimed.

"Yuffie..." said Cloud. "You don't think he'll be insulted?"

Dropping the bed onto the floor, she planted her hands on her hips. "Have you seen his room? It's got cushions all over, but they're so old all the stuffing's gone flat. This is way better. I'd sleep in it!"

She flopped down into it as if to demonstrate, but once they were airborne again, she had to abandon it in short order to avoid ruining it.

They waited for Vincent's confirmation that Nanaki was out of the canyon before they descended on it en masse. In the dry canyon, the summer heat was intense, but inside the pub, the cavern walls kept the worst of it at bay.

Tifa commandeered the pub kitchen, and Cloud helped Barret with hanging streamers and the all-important 'Happy Birthday' banner. Yuffie was on balloon duty, while Marlene busied herself with a one-of-a-kind birthday card.

Behind them, Cid and Reeve worked to set up a sound system so they could get some good music going, although there was a prolonged argument over exactly what 'good music' entailed. A significantly less colorful argument than it otherwise would have been, with Marlene so close by, although Cloud knew better than anyone that they'd already slipped up too many times. Marlene understood that Barret and Tifa didn't want her knowing 'bad words,' but when it was just her and Cloud, she'd offer him some 'goddamn tea' while they played pretend and then giggle.

It was the cutest fucking thing he'd ever seen, but he knew it was their secret, and he couldn't betray it. Barret and Tifa would just have to be in the dark for another decade or so until they were less likely to kill anyone over it.

Cait Sith, acting as lookout, alerted them to Nanaki and Vincent's return. They all crowded into position beneath the banner and waited for the pub door to swing open. As his familiar orange-furred head appeared, they all exclaimed in practiced unison,

"Happy birthday, Nanaki!"

Nanaki stared for a moment and then he huffed, glancing up at Vincent beside him. "Even you?" he asked.

"...it can't be escaped," said Vincent. He retrieved the traditional birthday crown from where it sat atop the nearest table, and Nanaki let him set it atop his head.

Yuffie's had been the first birthday to celebrate, almost immediately after Meteorfall. Cid and his crew were still checking over the Highwind after their harrowed flight from the Northern Crater, and they were camped somewhere between Midgar and Kalm, living off the provisions that hadn't been lost in the shuffle.

Cid had initially dismissed the idea of a birthday as pointless garbage, but most of them had disagreed, and he'd later found the time to make a very sad paper crown that had become an obligatory part of the tradition.

If Yuffie had had to wear that thing, then everybody did.

The crown fell off of Nanaki's head a few times before Tifa secured it with some bobby pins. There was no escaping it.

They did let him forego the usual round of hugs, knowing it was a human show of affection that he didn't care for. Instead they patted him gently amidst the chatter of greetings and congratulations. They tucked into the meal that Tifa had prepared, all Nanaki's favorite human foods, which weren't as meat-heavy as Cloud would have guessed when they'd first picked him up. For some reason he was really wild for cornbread.

He did not, however, care for cake, so they didn't have one. Instead it was ice cream sundaes, a welcome relief from the heat. Cloud volunteered to help Nanaki load his up, and he could excuse the bizarre choice of toppings, because Nanaki's taste buds were probably different, but Yuffie's concoction was arguably worse, and there was no excuse for that. Bean paste, anchovies, and breakfast marshmallows just had no business being in the same dish together.

They presented their gifts, afterwards. Nanaki sliced carefully through the paper with his claws, but Cloud wondered if he secretly wanted to tear it to shreds. Everybody did, he felt, but Nanaki got self-conscious sometimes about being seen as a beast. Cloud made sure to save the paper for him, just in case he wanted it later.

Nanaki seemed amused by Yuffie's dog bed, but there was a noticeable pause after he unwrapped Cid's gift to reveal a tin of catnip.

He thanked Cid politely, while Yuffie elbowed Cloud in the side. "See? It could've been way worse."

Truth be told, Cloud hadn't really known what to get either. He was terrible at gifts, and every time, he had to resist the temptation to sign his name along to whatever Tifa or Barret had settled on, as if he'd had equal input on it.

He watched anxiously as Nanaki unwrapped the old cassette player he'd found.

"I know it's a little old-fashioned," he said, "but it's a lot easier to find, um, books on tape, for some reason. And it gets good battery life."

Nanaki's whiskers went forward. "Thank you, Cloud," he said, and it sounded like he meant it that time.

The party went on after that, more relaxed. The music got turned up, and more disagreements were had over which records to play, until Nanaki voiced his opinion and shut them all down. Marlene had considerably more success than Barret in convincing anyone to dance to it, but there was dancing, and Cloud didn't let himself be the odd one out.

They felt it when the sun went down. Heat radiated from the entrance all day, but the temperature dropped quickly at night, and soon a pleasant chill seeped from beneath the door.

Most of them were spending the night. The conversation drifted towards accommodations, and Nanaki slipped outside. Cloud waited a beat, caught Tifa's look, and decided to follow.

Nanaki padded up to the bonfire, its glow dwarfing that of his tail. Cloud climbed up onto the platform and sat down beside him.

It was strange now for the fire to feel good after the hot day, but the night air was chilly on his bare arms. It was always strange, in a way, for fire to be nice. This one was steady and gentle, a sign of stability and community, and it put Cloud in mind of cautious new beginnings.

It had been a long time since the first time they'd come here. They'd barely known Nanaki before they'd reached his hometown, almost like he wasn't ready to be himself until he was home again and heard a familiar voice call his name. He hadn't even told them his name, before that.

He'd opened up a lot more after that, but he could still be hard to read, sometimes. Everybody said Cloud was quiet, but they all read him like an open book.

"...I hope all that wasn't too terrible," Cloud ventured at last.

"No," said Nanaki, his tone light. "Not too terrible."

"There some reason you didn't tell us?"

Nanaki was quiet for a moment. "I never celebrated birthdays, but Grandfather did."

"Oh," said Cloud. "...you must miss him." It felt like a stupid and obvious observation, but he knew his fumbling efforts to say the right thing were appreciated more than awkward silence.

"Yes. I had imagined... celebrating with him, once we'd saved the Planet. It would have been his 130th year. I think I couldn't stand the thought of doing it without him. Not here."


Nanaki shook his head. "No, I'm glad you did this. It was a foolish notion. Of course there should be other celebrations, and things worth celebrating. Life goes on."

"Yeah..." Cloud leaned back on his hands, looking into the bonfire. "For the first time, it really feels that way."

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Nanaki tilt his head curiously, waiting for him to go on.

"...I guess what I mean is, I didn't used to think that anything good was going to happen, to me. I even thought... maybe I didn't deserve it. Especially with everything that happened..." Zack. Aeris. Meteor. "But now we're here after what wasn't the end of the world, and things are okay. I have... all of you guys."

Nanaki leaned into him, bumping his head against his shoulder. For a moment, they sat in silence.

"Sometimes I still worry," Cloud admitted, "that we're all gonna start drifting apart."

"I think that's inevitable," Nanaki said quietly. "Eventually..."

Cloud looked down at him. Of course Nanaki was going to outlive all of them. They wouldn't just drift apart, they'd be gone. Behind them, the pub door opened, and Cloud sat up. "Well, we don't have to help it along. Look, we're here now. I'm pretty sure I can make it to your 100th birthday, and you know Yuffie. She says she'll live forever, and she might actually do it."

Nanaki put his whiskers forward. "She might."

"Is there an important one?" Cloud wondered. "Fifty sounded like a big deal to me, but I don't really know."

"...coming of age is, traditionally, 62. But seeing as I am the last... I think Yuffie would say, who cares about tradition?"

"Yeah, totally," said Yuffie, climbing up onto the platform with them. She plopped down on Nanaki's other side. "What're you talking about?"

"Coming of age," said Cloud.

"Oh, yeah. Screw tradition. I'm not waiting another two years for anybody to say I'm an adult, I already saved the world."

"...I suppose that's fair," Nanaki considered.

Yuffie squinted at him. "Nobody's still saying you're a kid at 50, are they?"

Nanaki shook his head. "No. There's no one left to say it."

"Way to be depressing on your birthday."

"Yuffie," said Cloud.

"What? I know you miss him, but I don't think it's respectful to the dead to start giving everything they said when they were alive some kind of special weight. They were people, and it's part of being people to be wrong sometimes. You take that away and you've just got an idea instead of the whole person."

Cloud wasn't sure how to argue with that one. He thought Aeris would have taken offense, insisting that everything she said should be considered important, but she wouldn't have meant it. She just liked to see people's faces. She and Yuffie together had been a menace.

"...maybe you're right," said Nanaki. "I did disagree with Grandfather over being a child. Though I think he was right, for a while. He didn't want me to rush, but I don't feel I'm rushing now."

"...happy 50th, Nanaki," said Cloud. "Welcome to adulthood."

Once the three of them went back inside, they helped Yuffie drag the dog bed on back into Nanaki's room. In their absence, the others had claimed the available beds at the inn, but it didn't matter.

Yuffie was right. The stupid dog bed was not only comfortable, but big enough for all three of them.

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